“If the zone is kept small, maybe it won’t be seen as a major provocation. But it is hard to see how [Syria] would not regard it as a pretty serious infringement of sovereignty and feel forced to respond. Things could get out of hand very rapidly,” said David Hartwell, a Middle East Analyst at the defense think tank IHS Jane’s told Sunday’s Zaman on Thursday.
Ankara declared this week that a “new period had begun” in Turkey’s Syria policy, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan suggesting that growing violence along the Turkish border could be used to rally NATO allies to defend Turkish sovereignty. Erdoğan’s words reflected Turkish fury over an incident earlier this week in which four refugees were killed when Syrian forces opened fire on a refugee camp inside Turkey. Over 24,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey so far, a number which has almost doubled from 15,000 last month.
The worsening refugee crisis has given new currency to the oft-proposed humanitarian zone plan among Turkish authorities, who say it would protect refugees and prevent the conflict from spilling over into Turkish territory. It has also been seen as a middle road between inaction and all-out intervention, and an open option for Turkey while UN and NATO powers -- especially a war-weary United States -- remain hesitant to intervene.
Oytun Orhan, a Syria analyst for the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), told Sunday’s Zaman on Thursday that Ankara has “grown extremely serious” about the plan, and has established an upper limit to the number of refugees it would admit before it acts. “Turkey may not hesitate to establish a militarily enforced zone if the refugee count reaches a certain number, perhaps 50,000 or higher,” he said.
Orhan described the zone as a several-kilometer wide corridor in one or several border areas, and said it would be justified under Turkey and Syria’s 1998 Adana Agreement, which authorizes Turkey to use military force in Syrian territory to ensure the “security and stability of Turkey.”
But Orhan and other analysts acknowledge that the “middle road” description of a humanitarian zone may not hold up in reality -- whatever the justification for entering Syria, Damascus is most likely to interpret even a narrowly limited military mission as a declaration of war. “Syria is going to see this as war. Even if you try to limit the mission, it won’t happen without a major military confrontation,” says Orhan.
“It’s hard to imagine a situation where escalation doesn’t occur relatively rapidly,” says defense analyst Hartwell. “If the zone is small, perhaps 10 kilometers within Syrian territory, maybe Turkey can reason that it won’t be seen as a major provocation. … But ultimately Syria has to fight this -- they would interpret the move as an invasion or a plot to undermine the state by creating a safe haven for the opposition inside Syria.”
Even if the Syrian military, which is bogged down by a 13 month-long civil conflict, decides not to confront a Turkish intervention, Hartwell says that “a long list of unknowns” could pull Turkey deeper into Syria’s widening conflict. Chief among these would be the temptation to expand operations and attack the Syrian camps of the separatist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which would likely take advantage of an intervention to attack Turkey’s military in Syria and step up attacks inside southwestern Turkey.
Hartwell also says the humanitarian situation could test the mandate. “What if the Turks establish a safe zone, but Syrian soldiers start killing refugees who are fleeing to the zone it is protecting? It would be hard for Turkey to stand by and refuse to expand its protection, and the mandate might grow very rapidly,” argues Hartwell.
“And what if Turkey does limit its mission to a protecting a small humanitarian zone,” asks Joshua Landis, a long-time Syria commentator and director of the University of Oklahoma’s Middle East Studies Department. “What will Turkey do if a million or more Syrian refugees arrive in the safe zone, and the conflict drags on for years? Intervening has tremendous costs; it means committing yourself for the long term,” he writes in correspondence to Sunday’s Zaman.
Such near inevitable complications, the Syria expert says, are reasons to believe Ankara will refrain from even the most limited military mission in the foreseeable future. “Should Ankara invade, it would not be able to extract itself from Syria until the Syrian regime was toppled, Alawite power destroyed, and a substitute government put in place. That is a very tall order,” writes Landis.
Defense analyst Hartwell shared similar views, saying that before it enters Syria, Ankara at the very least needs to recruit strong international partners and possess a clear set of priorities for intervention. As the outlook for the conflict continues to darken, both may prove harder than ever to find.